Thursday 8 December 2016

Play the game, not the occasion

All-Ireland final build-up now light years removed from what it was when I was starting out

Henry Shefflin

Published 29/08/2015 | 14:00

Kilkenny supporters gather in Nowlan Park for an ‘open’ training session prior to the county’s appearance in the 2010 All-Ireland SHC final
Kilkenny supporters gather in Nowlan Park for an ‘open’ training session prior to the county’s appearance in the 2010 All-Ireland SHC final

Some of the most cherished photographs we have at home are of me leaving the house on All-Ireland final morning.

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The more recent ones have a particularly special meaning to me because I'm pictured with the children in my Kilkenny tracksuit. In years to come, I'd like to think they'll appreciate those images as much I do. Because that morning is such a special moment in your life. It's important that the players of Kilkenny and Galway fully understand that.

What strikes me now is how the experience of an All-Ireland final build-up changed so utterly during my time as a county hurler. Last week, both Kilkenny and Galway will have held press nights which were, I don't doubt, unrecognisable from what would have been commonplace 15 years ago.

When I started, press nights were open season. You'd basically have the pretence of a training session while journalists were on the field with access to all areas. So you could be doing drills with cameras in your face and I recall one particular Kilkenny player taking grave umbrage at this intrusion. Instead of drilling the ball back to a player on the opposite side of the field, he began trying to ping the cameraman!

Informal

Looking back, it all felt a lot more easy-going and informal back then. I remember reading once how Mayo's football management made every single player in their panel available for interview before an All-Ireland final. That was the general vibe at the time. Now everything is quite regimented and, I suppose, sanitised. The whole process has been minimalised, management nominating just a couple of players for group interview.

Brian Cody would have kept me out of the media spotlight in my early years but, as I got older, it felt more natural taking up that mantle. My experience is that most players have no fear of talking, it's really a problem for only a small minority.

We used do 'open-days' too, days when you might have 2,000 people pour through the gates to interact with the team and you could be sitting for three or four hours signing autographs. It was a brilliant idea that the supporters really appreciated. But my memory of it is that it would drain the life out of you. We might have trained hard that Friday night and the 'open day' would be Saturday. Come that Sunday, I always felt completely emptied of energy.

Over time, a completely different dynamic came to apply. Those 'open days' were dispensed with and, of course, the doors were eventually closed completely to Kilkenny training itself. I think one of the triggers for the latter was a near-circus which developed prior to the 2010 final against Tipperary when 8,000 people came into Nowlan Park to witness my 'miraculous' return from a damaged cruciate.

I've often felt that was a pity, particularly for diehards like Eddie Keher who liked to come to training almost every night.

The problem is, with preparation becoming so refined and games getting so tactical, you could never be quite sure who was coming in to watch you train. I mean I don't think anyone was hugely surprised by last year's story of a Donegal 'spy' being flushed out of a tree overlooking Fitzgerald Stadium before the All-Ireland football final against Kerry.

Galway will have been very disappointed to lose last weekend's U-21 semi-final to Limerick as it would have been a great achievement for the county to make all three All-Ireland finals. But I always felt it was going to be a difficult game for their seniors on the U-21 panel.

In 1999, my first senior year with Kilkenny, we had an U-21 semi-final against Antrim up in Drogheda about two weeks out from the senior All-Ireland. Thankfully, we got a few early goals and I was taken off after about 20 minutes, management having decided that, if the game allowed, those involved with the senior panel could be substituted early. It's only natural that the senior game is in your head in those circumstances.

There are a lot of different distractions to contend with, but I always made a point of keeping them at arm's length. I was very much into focusing on the game, the opponent, the absolute obligation to be 100pc on the day. To that end, I'd make sure to get down to the field in Ballyhale practising the frees as I never felt it was enough simply to turn up for set training sessions.

It's always around this time of year too that Tadhg Crowley, our team doctor - a man who'd largely keep his counsel throughout the year - would start reminding us that we were into autumn now and, with a 'nip' in the air, it was important to bring in tracksuit tops. Little things like that you'd come to associate with an All-Ireland final feel.

These are special weeks for everyone concerned. I met Pat Hoban, the Kilkenny minor manager, in work on Monday and, having had the experience of being in the final last year, he was saying how much they were really missing that buzz this time.

But, for now, that enjoyment is strictly for the public. The players need to stay absolutely tuned into the jobs they have to do.

One thing they will certainly do well to avoid is trying to re-enact that miracle of the loaves and the fishes when it comes to tickets. My way of dealing with requests was to tell people that they were "on the list", but that I couldn't guarantee anything. Over time, I learnt how to delegate, to put that "list" in somebody else's hands. I've a big family, my wife Deirdre has a big family. So I was never long getting through my ticket allocation. They were my priority.

It's actually worse for me now that I'm no longer playing. Most people are inclined to leave the players be. You might get the odd call out of the blue from someone you may have met once but, at this moment in time, they start addressing you as a best friend. But, by and large, there's an understanding there that players have enough on their plates without having to sort out tickets.

Now that I'm outside the tent, I don't have the comfort of that understanding!

This will have been a hard contact week of training. Galway and Kilkenny will both have played two hard practice games this week, 15 on 15. It's A v B, serious stuff, everyone getting themselves fully tuned in.

Next week will be very much a physical wind-down. The hard work is done and it's then that the game itself really starts to come into focus. You can just feel the whole thing ratcheting up gradually. The crowds start forming around Nowlan Park in pursuit of tickets and it's at that point that you feel the nerves kick in.

Unlike professional footballers, GAA players aren't removed from their public. They don't live in a bubble. So they'll be getting endless questions about the game. "How will ye go?" "Is the team known?" "Any tickets?"

The instinct of any player here is to engage on a superficial level, to deliver reasonably bland responses, all the time avoid getting into a genuine conversation.

You try to be respectful and move on. It's difficult. Lads will feel most comfortable in their own cocoon of training, be it Nowlan Park or Athenry. Because that's the only environment in which everybody is in the same mental space.

I always offered myself a little reward on All-Ireland final week. At the last post-training meal in Langtons, I'd break out and have a big bowl of apple tart and ice cream for dessert. After a whole year of watching the diet, I'd see it almost as The Last Supper.

One thing Kilkenny have always done is drive up the morning of the game, meaning the players sleep in their own beds. I've always felt this is preferable to a hotel stay the night before when any number of things can keep you awake.

That said, the day before the final can be very long if, say, it's teeming down with rain and you can't really get out to do anything. As I became more experienced, I always made sure I'd have plenty of things to do, just to keep the mind occupied.

Comfort

In the middle of my career especially, I probably became a little over-anxious about avoiding any outside mention of the game. If I walked into the kitchen and saw a newspaper on the table I'd, almost on reflex, walk straight back out again.

It's about finding a balance and I did that much better later in my career. At the end of the day, nobody is trying to sabotage your preparation. The most important thing I think, in hindsight, is just making sure to be yourself and not fall into the trap of playing a role you imagine someone else wants of you.

Everywhere I go, people ask me am I missing it now. Of course I am. Kilkenny were away for a training weekend last week and that was always one of my favourite experiences as a county hurler. The sense of being together, if only for a couple of days, as virtual full-time professionals. That said, I don't regret retiring. I never have.

The key for the players over the next week now is don't hide from what's ahead of you, but maybe don't over-embrace it either. Remember that it's the game you need to be ready for tomorrow week, not the occasion.

Irish Independent

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